Earlier in the day, Blue Raja and I had a discussion at the Boar’s Head Tavern about an earlier post where I quoted a Semi-Pelagian IM commenter. It’s discouraging to read that the atonement “opened the door” for us to now live a life worthy of the Kingdom of God. As I usually do, I expressed my despair at these kinds of “living to please God” systems of salvation and the blatant dishonesty they encourage and despair they induce.
So here was one of my replies.
The Gospel was never good news for me until Luther helped me see that life could continue to be tragic. I never worry about abundant life doing more than the occasional appearance in the present. I’m content with Christ in the shadowlands if he guarantees to raise me from the dead and bring me home.
This keeps coming back to me from readers who say it’s hit home with them, and where can they find more.
Before I talk about finding more of that, let me assure you that I responded to the Lutheran altar call a very long time ago.
In 1987, I was living in Louavul, going to seminary and working at a church just off campus. One J-term- a one week, intensive summer session, I believe- I was taking “Theology of Martin Luther” from the new church history guy, Dr. Timothy George.
I’ve had very, very few mystical experiences in my life, but during one lecture in that class, heaven opened up to me like never before or since. I was transported. The personal, existential dimension of the incarnation as it applies to my salvation fell on me like a gigantic wave.
To say the least, I became a Luther reader, which led me, unfortunately, to be susceptible to 16 years of Calvinism. The reason for that was simple: I didn’t know any Lutherans. The few I met wouldn’t talk to me. It was a crucial error. If I had developed relationships with Lutherans, I could have found the Lutheran reformation. Instead, the Calvinistic resurgence in Baptist life found me (Al Martin variety) and led me to some good things (Founder’s, Spurgeon) and a lot of wasted time and self-effort disguised as doing everything “to the Glory of God.”
Thank God for Steve Brown, The White Horse Inn and Michael Horton, Calvinists who stayed on more than friendly terms with the Lutheran reformation and knew how to communicate its heart.
It was Luther’s approach to his own humanity that saved me. Literally. Luther led me out of the “victorious Christian life” swamp. He simplified the Gospel. He stayed earthy and didn’t play the goofy spiritual games that evangelicalism was so prone to adore. The center was Christ and the Gospel was for sinners.
[In the interests of fairness, I should also say that in 1980, I had visited an LCMS church and was turned away at the altar abruptly, without explanation. That was my own ignorance, of course, and my own church at the time practiced closed communion. But the experience gave me a bad taste that has never entirely gone away.]
1. I found him in his own writings and sermons. Especially in Dillenberger’s Luther Reader,Luther’s own Table Talk, the commentary on Galatians and the “House Postils,” usually sold as the “Sermons of Martin Luther” in sets.
2. I found him at the White Horse Inn, where Rod Rosenbladt’s voice became synonymous with all I liked about Lutheran spirituality.
3. I came to appreciate that a lot of what I was hearing from Michael Horton wasn’t typical Baptist Calvinism as a kind of Kuyperian Calvinism deeply influenced by Lutheran theology. Horton has no bad books, but In the Face of God, A Better Way and Too Good To Be Trueespecially apply here. I haven’t read Christless Christianity, but it surely would be included. Horton’s work on the web is archived at his Monergism fan page and MP3 site. If my quote appealed to you, read “Singing the Blues With Jesus.”
4. More recently, I’ve appreciated the Lutheran Confessions, the Treasury of Daily Prayer, theLutheran Service Book (I really love this complete guide to all worship resources + hymnal) and the many hours of fine Lutheran teaching available at Pirate Christian Radio and, especially, the best program on the radio/internet, Issues, Etc. Check out the topics at Issues, etc. the past few days. Is your church going to address “The Super Christian Myth” in a series about depression in the lives of Christians anytime soon?
5. I have to mention my friend Josh Strodtbeck. He infuriates me. I’ve kicked him off the BHT multiple times. No one has shown me less mercy in my writing. But he’s turned out to be a true friend and has made me think about Lutheranism more than any one human being. Now all he does is rant about politics, but in the golden era of his blogging, he was a very helpful teacher.
I’m a Baptist. I can’t imagine I will ever be a Lutheran. I have sacramental issues with infant Baptism. If we could get rid of the babies and not talk about “what’s really happening,” I’d probably be fine. But Lutheranism is a long way from being the core of who I am, but it has deeply influenced the way I preach, read the Bible and understand the Gospel. Today, my Lutheran side reads Capon and Zahl, both Anglicans. Go figure. I know that Luther was just as Catholic as he was Protestant, and some of that side of him is inaccessible to me given my own journey. I can let it rest.
What I like about Lutherans is their anthropology and their stubborn refusal to fall for the various “victorious life” or “holiness” schemes that evangelicals and others frequently can’t resist. Luther was realistic about himself and he was realistic about what he was doing. He had very little tolerance for the abuse of religion or the complicating/polluting of the Gospel. I’ve been reading some of his epistles on liturgical reform and it’s plain that he wants the basics to remain front and center, and the additions, inventions and accretions to be thrown overboard.
So Luther lived with a lot of mystery. He didn’t mind asserting that two different things could both be true in the language of the Bible. He didn’t bother himself with speculations a la Jonathan Edwards or an army of marching Calvinists. He didn’t try to impress anyone with how pious he was.
I’m not attracted to Lutheranism because of Lutherans or their outreaching churches. A lot of the Lutherans I’ve met won no merit badges for representing their tradition with any generosity toward other traditions. Some Lutherans are legendary for their intolerance of other Christians and lack of concern for anyone with a curiosity about Lutheranism. This is acknowledged by many Lutherans, and it is changing. Confessional Lutheranism is learning a different manner and discovering a constructive conversation with other Christians. This is a good thing, and I am glad to see it. But there is a long way to go. I am still hours away from a Lutheran church.
I used to have a co-worker who was Charismatic. He’d been raised Lutheran. He would come to my breakfast table, see I was reading something liturgical and start in. “None of those Lutherans were saved. I never heard the Word of God from them. They aren’t free.”
I heard three things here: 1) These are people who aren’t constantly trying to re-save everyone. 2) They probably used lots and lots of scripture. 3) There weren’t any ridiculous hi-jinks blamed on God.
Sounded good to me.
Some of you reading this heard what I said about Luther allowing life to still be tragic, and your heart beat faster. Could it be that there is a way off that treadmill? Is there a way out from under that pressure? Is there a door out of the evangelical circus into something else that won’t drive you to despair?
Yes, and chances are, if you are a typical evangelical or Calvinist, you know almost nothing about the Lutheran way. So spend some time getting to know it.